Monday, March 24, 2008

"Ella" is on-stage at the Rep

My freelance review:
Arguably the finest female jazz singer of all time, Ella Fitzgerald comes alive again in Ella, the season closer for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The time is July 1966 and the place is a simple concert stage in Nice, France, where Ella is rehearsing for an upcoming concert to be recorded for her posterity. At the urging of her manager and friend Norman Granz, the private Ella, at age 49, relunctantly laces her performance with "patter" about her life. Ella begins to reminisce, uncovering a past her public never knew.

Actress Tina Fabrique plays Ella with a lot of gusto, charm and beauty. Her voice is quite beautiful, too, as she reenacts over twenty of Ella's classic songs.

The entire play is acted out on the same concert stage, with Fabrique on-stage throughout. Act 1 offers a stressed Ella in rehearsal recounting her first big break at the Apollo Theatre at age 17, as well as subsequent details in her career and personal life, such as her challenges in raising her son. The entire Act 2 is Ella's big show -- including more songs and patter.

We get to know a lot about Ella Fitzgerald from this play. Her life was not overly dramatic, especially compared to so many of the big stars of today. Fabrique's Ella comments, "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't sleep around. All I do is sing the songs."

Still, she had her share of ups and downs, including the death of her sister and the estrangement of her son.  Surprisingly, though, I didn't feel as strong of an emotional connection as I suspect there could have been had elements of Ella's patter been arranged differently.

The most memorable parts of Ella are the songs, with music ranging from the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to Duke Ellington, Sonny Curtis and Johnny Mercer. Stand-out songs include "The Nearness of You," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Blue Skies."

Ella plays through April 13 at the Rep.

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